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Leadership in a Crisis: Performing under pressure 

In this blog post, Dominic Cockram, conference chair and managing director of specialist crisis management and business continuity consultancy, Steelhenge, discusses crisis leadership and the characteristics effective crisis leaders should demonstrate.

How does leadership in a normal business environment differ from that required during a crisis?

In many ways, the real question is how does a crisis differ from normal business?

The key characteristics of a crisis are surprise, major disruption to the normal flow of activity, a lack of information, loss of control, high levels of stress, intense external scrutiny, a focus on the short-term and immense time constraints. In a crisis the stakes are high and there is real pressure to make decisions rapidly, often based on incomplete information. It is a very uncomfortable environment. When a crisis strikes, leaders and their teams are often forced into unfamiliar situations, in which they fear making mistakes. In this very different operating environment, their behaviours have to differ from ‘business as usual’.

Crisis leaders should ensure the following seven areas are managed appropriately:

1. The pace of activity – everything is far more pressurised in a crisis; events move faster than usual and therefore so must the team’s activity.

2. Information – the need to manage incoming information from multiple sources and create a coherent and informative picture of what is ‘fact’ and what is ‘assumption’ is of upmost importance during a crisis. A successful leader will ensure the smooth transfer of information to enhance situational awareness and decision-making.

3. Decisions – during crises, rapid decision-making, often based on incomplete or insufficient information, is needed.

4. Uncertainty – the need to create stability from chaos.

5. Direction – the leader needs to act decisively and cut through the ‘clutter’, reaching the critical issues and facts.

6. Time – Leaders need to develop a clear view of criticality and timelines to know where they must focus their decisions and the immediate efforts of their teams.

7. Strategy – The leader should provide a strategic perspective of the crisis and look to the future; the tactical level teams are there to manage the operational delivery. The leader must avoid being dragged into the ‘tactical weeds’, instead providing risk analysis and critical strategic direction.

An effective crisis leader must display confidence, decisiveness, strategic vision, be a good communicator, and possess the ability to recognise what is important when surrounded by confusion and chaos.

Leaders of organisations in crisis need to seize the agenda and drive through the required strategies to meet key stakeholder needs. At the same time, leaders communicate effectively with the world’s media. There have been many recent examples of different organisations not achieving this, with negative reputational impacts.

The 3rd annual Crisis Management Conference being held in London on September 15, 2015, will focus on leadership in crisis preparedness and response. The one day conference will discuss the issues faced by an organisation’s leadership team during a crisis and how they can prepare them for the crises of tomorrow.

Speakers from BAE Systems, CERN, Deutsche Bank, Marks & Spencer and the UK’s Department of Business, Skills and Innovation will share their valuable insights and experiences of how they, and their organisational leaders, prepare for, respond to, and recover from crises.

The Crisis Management Conference will bring together top-level speakers at the forefront of crisis preparedness and response to share valuable insights into leadership during crisis. For more information and to register please visit the CMC website

Dominic Cockram, 16/07/2015
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